Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Liberated learning in Rojava

Janet Biehl reports on the new women’s science of jineolojî and the revolutionary transformation of education in Rojava, western Kurdistan

August 25, 2015
9 min read

meso-academyThe Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy campus. Photo: Janet Biehl

Following the outbreak of civil war in Syria and the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from western Kurdistan, the Kurdish people in this region were presented with an unparallelled opportunity to assert their autonomy. Although threatened by the expansion from Iraq of the Islamic State and by the overspill of fighting from Syria, the Kurdish revolutionary movement almost immediately declared the primacy of new self‑governing institutions, a political model known as ‘democratic confederalism’, which aims to secure the democratic self‑management of society without the state.

Once self-governing institutions were established, the need for a new kind of education was paramount. Not that the people of western Kurdistan were uneducated – high school graduation rates were and are very high there, as I and the rest of an academic delegation learned during our visit. But education was crucial to creating the revolutionary culture in which the new institutions could thrive. It is a matter not for children and youths alone but for adults as well, even the elderly.

As Aldar Xelîl, a member of the council of Tev-Dem, the political coalition governing the autonomous region of Rojava, explained to us, Rojava’s political project is ‘not just about changing the regime but creating a mentality to bring the revolution to society. It’s a revolution for society.’ Dorîn Akîf, who teaches at two academies in Rojava, agreed: ‘Perception has to be changed,’ she told us, ‘because mentality is so important for our revolution now. Education is crucial for us.’

The first issue that the revolution had to confront was the language of instruction. For four decades under the Assad regime, Kurdish children had to learn Arabic and study in Arabic. The Kurdish language was banned from public life; teaching it was illegal and could be punished by imprisonment and even torture. So when the Syrian Kurds took their communities into their own hands, they immediately set up Kurdish language instruction. The first such school to open was ehîd Fewzî’s School in Efrîn canton, followed by one each in Kobanê and Cizîrê. By August 2014, Cizîrê alone had 670 schools, with 3,000 teachers offering Kurdish-language courses to 49,000 students.

Mesopotamian Academy, Qamislo

In early December our delegation visited Rojava’s first and only institution of higher education, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in Qamislo. The Assad regime had permitted no such institutions in the Kurdish areas; this one opened in September 2014 and is still very much under construction. Teaching and discussions are mostly in Kurdish, although the sources are often in Arabic, since many essential texts have not yet been translated.

One challenge the academy faces, several members of the administration and faculty told us, is that people in north‑eastern Syria think they have to go abroad to get a good education. ‘We want to change that,’ said one instructor. ‘We don’t want people to feel inferior about where they live. In the Middle East there is a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom, and we are trying to uncover it. Many things that have happened in history happened here.’

The school year consists of three terms, each lasting three to four months, progressing from overviews of subjects to specialisation to final projects. The curriculum comprises mainly history and sociology.

Why those subjects? They are crucial, we were told. Under the regime, ‘our existence [as Kurds] was disputed. We are trying to show that we exist and have made many sacrifices along the way. . . . We consider ourselves part of history, subjects of history.’ The instruction seeks to ‘uncover histories of peoples that have been denied, . . . to create a new life to overcome the years and centuries of enslavement of thought that have been imposed on people.’ Ultimately, its purpose is ‘to write a new history.’

The sociology curriculum takes a critical stance towards 20th-century positivism and instead seeks to develop a new, alternative social science for the 21st century – what Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), calls ‘sociology of freedom’. For their final projects, students choose a particular social problem, then research it and write a thesis on how to resolve it. So the learning is practical as well as intellectual, and intended to serve a social good.

Indeed, education in Rojava is not about ‘building a career and getting rich’. Rather, academy students are taught to ‘ask themselves how to enrich society’. Similarly, the academy seeks not to develop professionalism but to cultivate the well-rounded person. ‘We believe humans are organisms, they can’t be cut up into parts, separated into sciences,’ an instructor told us. ‘One can be a writer or a poet and also be interested in economy, because human beings are part of all life.’

Unlike conventional western approaches, the academy’s pedagogy rejects the unidirectional transmission of facts. Indeed, it doesn’t strictly separate teachers and students. Teachers learn from students and vice versa; ideally, through inter-subjective discourse, they come to shared conclusions.

Nor are the instructors necessarily specialist teachers; they are people whose life experience has given them insights that they can impart. One teacher, for example, recounts folk tales once a week. ‘We want teachers to help us understand the meaning of life,’ we were told. ‘We focus on giving things meaning, being able to interpret and comment as well as analyse.’

Students take exams, but those exams don’t measure knowledge – they are ‘more like reminders, like dialogues’. And teachers themselves are subject to evaluation by students. ‘You did not explain this very well,’ a student can say. A teacher who is criticised has to talk out the issue with the student until they both feel they understand each other.

Yekitiya Star Academy, Rimelan

The women’s Yekitiya Star Academy in Rimelan pushes the educational approach of the Mesopotamian Academy further. Our delegation visited this too in early December.

Founded in 2012, its purpose is to educate female revolutionary cadres, so naturally its emphasis on ideology is more pronounced. Over the past 30 years, instructor Dorîn Akîf told us, women participated in the Kurdish freedom movement, first as fighters, then in women’s institutions. Three years ago Kurdish women produced jineolojî, or ‘women’s science’, which they regard as the culmination of that decades-long experience.

At the academy in Rimelan, students are first given a general overview of jineolojî, ‘the kind of knowledge that was stolen from women’ and that women today can recover. ‘We are trying to overcome women’s non-existence in history. We try to understand how concepts are produced and reproduced within existing social relations, then we come up with our own understanding. We want to establish a true interpretation of history by looking at the role of women and making women visible in history.’

Jineolojî, said Dorîn Akîf, considers women to be ‘the main actor in economy, and economy as the main activity of women . . . Capitalist modernity defines economy as man’s primary responsibility. But we say this is not true, that always and everywhere women are the main actors in the economy.’ Because of this basic contradiction, she argues, capitalist modernity will eventually be overcome.

The way people interpret history affects the way they act, so ‘we talk about pre-Sumerian social organisation. We also look how the state emerged historically and how the concept has been constructed,’ Akîf added. But power and the state are not the same. ‘Power is everywhere, but the state is not everywhere. Power can operate in different ways.’ Power, for example, is present in grassroots democracy, which has nothing to do with the state.

Jineolojî regards women as quintessentially democratic. The Star Academy educates students (who are still mostly women) in Rojavan civics. ‘We look at the political mechanisms – women’s parliaments, women’s communes; and the general [mixed] parliaments, general communes, neighbourhood parliaments. Here in Rojava we always have both mixed ones and women’s exclusive ones. In the mixed ones, the representation of women is 40 per cent, plus there is always a co-presidency to ensure equality.’

As at the Mesopotamian Academy, students at the Star Academy are taught to see themselves as citizens, with ‘the power to discuss and construct . . . There is no teacher and student. The session is built on sharing experiences.’ Students range from teenagers to great-grandmothers. ‘Some have graduated from universities, and some are illiterate. Each has knowledge, has truth in their life, and all knowledge is crucial for us . . . The older woman has experience. A woman at 18 is spirit, the new generation, representing the future.’

Every programme culminates in a final session called the platform. Here each student stands and says how she will participate in Rojava’s democracy. Will she join an organisation, or the women’s protection units, the YPJ, or participate in a women’s council? What kind of responsibility she will take?

We queried Dorîn about the academy’s teachings on gender (a word that does not exist in Kurdish). ‘Our dream,’ she said, ‘is that women’s participating and building society will change men, a new kind of masculinity will emerge. Concepts of men and women aren’t biologistic – we’re against that. We define gender as masculine and masculinity in connection with power and hegemony. Of course we believe that gender is socially constructed.’

Moreover, she explained, the ‘woman problem’ isn’t solely the province of women: ‘It’s embedded in society, so women’s exclusion is society’s problem. So we have to redefine women, life, and society all together at the same time. The problem of women’s freedom is the problem of society’s freedom.’

She went on to cite a phrase from Öcalan, ‘Kill the man’, which has become a watchword, meaning ‘the masculine man has to change’. Equally, she said, women’s colonised subjectivity, or femininity, must be killed. The social ambition embodied by the academy is to overcome domination and hegemonic power and ‘create an equal life together’.

Janet Biehl is an independent writer, artist and translator. She is the author of Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. This article originally appeared in a longer form on www.biehlonbookchin.com.
The Mesopotamian Academy has launched an appeal for books, with the aim to establish a multilingual library. For more information visit the ‘Donate a book to Mesopotamia Academy’ Facebook page

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum